Journalist Nasim Ahmed argues that the UK’s most senior rabbi was wrong to conflate anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
Britain’s chief rabbi waded into the anti-Semitism row this week with an article in the Telegraph.: “Ken Livingstone and the hard left are spreading the insidious virus of anti-Semitism,” claimed Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. In his strongly-worded article, he made a number of remarkable statements while trying to dispel what he described as “a myth that… has poisoned public discourse on anti-Semitism and Israel for decades.”
After telling readers that the likes of former London Mayor Ken Livingstone and NUS President-elect Malia Bouattia are unqualified to “provide an analysis of one of the axioms of Jewish belief”, Rabbi Mirvis asserted the authority of his position as head of one section of Britain’s Jewish community to claim that “Zionism is a noble and integral part of Judaism.” Anyone suggesting otherwise, he insisted, is “deeply insulting to the Jewish community.”
Unlike his predecessors, who tended to keep their heads below the parapet regarding Palestine-Israel issues while in office, the chief rabbi since 2013 has made a number of vocal, and some would say sensational, public interventions in support of Israel. During his trip to Israel in 2014, he said: “Israel is central to our faith [I would like] Israel to feature more prominently in our synagogues and across our communities.”
At the beginning of 2016, during Israeli Apartheid Week — an annual programme of events that take place across 150 universities and cities in Britain and even more around the world — Rabbi Mirvis pointed out that he grew up in South Africa; this, apparently, gave him the moral authority to add, “So believe me when I say Israel is not an apartheid state.” Israel, of course, was a great friend of Apartheid South Africa and, as a “white”, the young Ephraim Mirvis would very likely have had the privileges such status conferred. He thus may well be equally dismissive of those in the South African anti-Apartheid movement, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who maintain that Israel is indeed an apartheid state or, in the words of ANC chair Baleka Mbete, “far worse than apartheid South Africa”. No doubt the chief rabbi is equally dismissive of the increasing number of liberal and ultra-orthodox Jews who share the views of the anti-Apartheid movement.
Rabbi Mirvis also came under fire from members of the Jewish community for populist comments that one might normally associate with the newly-appointed Israeli ambassador in London and former mouthpiece for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Australian-born Mark Regev. The chief rabbi used a sermon to thunder that, “Jews respect human life, unlike Palestinians.” This produced a critical response from British writer Robert Cohen, who told him, “Your sermon on Palestinian violence failed tests of moral and communal leadership.”
Cohen wrote his article after Rabbi Mirvis spoke about “the healing of relationships” and mentioned the latest uprising in Palestine. He reminded his listeners of the overwhelming sympathy felt by the British media and the public over the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013. He then asked everyone to imagine what the public mood would be if such horrific murder was to become a daily occurrence up and down the country.
In one fell swoop he portrayed the current uprising against Israel’s military occupation of Palestine as the work of militant jihadists while playing on the emotions of the British public with reference to Rigby’s murder. This was not only gratuitous but also epitomised the dark sophistry of Israeli propaganda. It was also, wrote Cohen, a “gross distortion of the situation in Israel.” Stunned by the chief rabbi’s inability to grasp the fact that there is a direct relationship between Israel’s brutal treatment of Palestinians and the latest uprising he mocked his entire framing of the conflict: “This is the narrative that boils the entire 100-plus years of Palestinian/Jewish conflict down to: they hate us.” [Emphasis added.]
Given his routine, over-zealous defence of Israel, we shouldn’t be surprised by Rabbi Mirvis’s “anti-Semitism” intervention. He is rooted firmly in the politics of Israeli right-wing rejectionists. In fact, he appears to be an apologist for Israel’s cruelty. The swift manner by which one Israeli newspaper dismissed the notion of a minor disagreement between Britain’s chief rabbi and Netanyahu is extremely revealing; his politics are less about “the healing of relationships” and more about maintaining Israel’s firm grip over occupied Palestinian territory.
Furthermore, Rabbi Mirvis’s self-assumed authority to speak on this matter dispassionately should not be taken at face-value; indeed, his comments should be treated with suspicion. This is not only because of his track record in defending Israel’s indefensible actions, but also because no political concept should be beyond public scrutiny. “Zionism,” asserts the chief rabbi, “is a belief in the right to Jewish self-determination in a land that has been at the centre of the Jewish world for more than 3,000 years.” Questioning this hypothesis, though, has got to be no more anti-Semitic than questioning the idea of Muslim self-determination is Islamophobic.
The post-colonial creation of dozens of Muslim-majority countries, some Muslims would argue, is not an authentic manifestation of Muslim self-determination. True and genuine self-determination by Muslims, they maintain, would see the creation of an Islamic state. Muslims from around the world would find a safe-haven in this “self-determined” state; their national background — be it British or Burmese; Syrian or South African; Palestinian or Pakistani — would not prevent them from being granted citizenship. Using the chief rabbi’s argument that criticism of Zionism is “anti-Semitic”, it is, therefore, reasonable to say that criticism of Muslim self-determination is Islamophobic, ergo the entire crusade against political Islam is Islamophobic and should be off-limits. Although some might claim that it should be treated as such, no reasonable person would, as no political ideology should be beyond scrutiny, including Zionism. It is, frankly, ludicrous to equate criticism of a political ideology like Zionism with anti-Semitism.
The chief rabbi’s attempt to re-write history won’t stick. He quite probably believes that his intervention will be the final word in the debate about anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, but that is very unlikely. In the real world, Jewish voices have been split over political Zionism and where it stands in relation to the ancient religion of Judaism. The hard truth is that political ideologies emerge out of a historical context and Zionism is rooted in European nationalism more than Judaism. Its critics would argue that the most pernicious elements of Zionism come out of the most extreme forms of nationalism.
The ideas espoused by Zionists in the late nineteenth century formed a minority view amongst Jews. Its distortion of Judaic teachings led many orthodox rabbis to condemn Zionism’s key tenets. In his book “The Origins of Zionism” (Oxford University Press, 1980), David Vital notes that, “Shortly before the 1897 [Zionist] Congress in Basle the German Rabbinate formally and publicly condemned the ‘efforts of the so-called Zionists to create a Jewish national State in Palestine’ as contrary to the divine law. The rabbis called upon all those committed to the interest of Judaism to distance themselves from Political Zionism and the impending Congress organised by Theodor Herzl.”
In “Politics and Divine Promise”, author K. Harmann writes about the former Chief Rabbi of Vienna, Dr Moritz Gudemann (1835-1918), who also expressed similar reservations about the “worldly” nature of political Zionism. In his monograph titled “National-Judenthum” (National Judaism, 1897) Dr Gudemann made a scathing attack on the aims and programmes of the Zionist movement. “True Zionism,” he wrote, “was not separable from the future of humanity.” On the contrary, it was closely connected to the ethical perfection and brotherhood of all mankind. The future of the Jewish people, he insisted, was not dependent upon “our national restoration in Palestine, with all the requirements of state sovereignty.”
Critics of Zionism amongst the rabbinical class were not exclusively from Europe. In Jerusalem, the Rabbi of Brisk, Joseph Hayyim Sonnenfeldt (1848-1932), expressed similar condemnation of political Zionism: “As to the Zionists, what shall I say and what am I to speak? There is great dismay also in the Holy Land that these evil men who deny the Unique one of the world and His holy Torah have proclaimed with so much publicity that it is in their hands to hasten redemption for the people of Israel and gather the dispersed from the ends of the earth. They have also asserted their view, that the whole difference and distinction between Israel and the nations lies in nationalism, blood and race; and that the faith and the religion are superfluous.”
The conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is, though, a long-standing strategy of Israeli politics. In his response to this very question (Is anti-Zionism anti-Semitism?), Noam Chomsky said that it is certainly not the case. He cited an article by Abba Eban, Israel’s Foreign Minister from 1966 to 1974, in which he advised the Jewish community to undertake two tasks: one was to equate criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism, and the other was to marginalise Jewish voices critical of Israel as “self-hating” Jews. It is clearly a political tactic to achieve political, not religious, objectives.
It would seem that Britain’s chief rabbi has fallen victim to this propaganda. In doing so, I would, respectfully, suggest that he has compromised the moral and ethical teachings of the Jewish faith for the political expediency of the Zionist state of Israel.
This article was first published in the Middle East Monitor.